June 09, 2008

The cougar relationship

(This is the unabridged version of my column, Something Like Life, published on June 6, 2008, in the BusinessMirror.)

I WAS channel-surfing the other day and chanced upon another showbiz true stories-type of program, featuring the Top 25 Cougars in Hollywood. Guess who made to the top of the list? Of course, it was none other than Demi Moore.

Okay, wait a minute…to those who are still in the dark, a “cougar” is a term to describe older women dating or are married to younger men. How young? Well in Demi Moore’s case, her Ashton Kutcher is 15 years younger than her. (Hmmm…did Demi ever think that when she was starting to screw around, Ashton was just in his nappies sucking his thumb? Eww. Banish that thought! Just think how the thumbsucker turned out into the gorgeous hunk and drool.)

To most women over 40 who have a difficult time finding and maintaining relationships with men their age or older, Demi has come to symbolize the ideal woman. She looks fabulous for her age, has a great career, has grown-up and, as far as we can tell, well-behaved kids, a supportive ex-husband in the person of Bruce Willis, and obviously lots of great sex with Ashton. To top it off, Bruce gets along well with Ashton! What a fabulously satisfying life Demi must have and I personally envy her. I wish I had the guts to date someone younger than me.

Of course, a cougar relationship isn’t exactly smooth-sailing as Demi and Ashton would like us to believe. Especially in our culture, cougar relationships, a.k.a. May-December affairs, are still viewed somewhat negatively. They are viewed as either predatory (on the part of the women) or parasitical (on the part of the young men). This is especially true if the man and woman are not on equal footing financially or intellectually.

I remember my mom dissing an amiga of hers who was going out with a man half her age. I, of course, applauded my tita and jested that my mom was just envious about my tita’s good fortune. Inggit ka lang, noh?! (It is a scientific fact that as women reach their 30s and 40s, their testosterone levels get a boost, thus accounting for their increased libido. On the other hand, men at this age would rather head off to Dreamland. As one writer asks, if you had a choice between a thick juicy steak and beef jerky, what would you choose? Then again, sex may not necessarily be the only reason these supposed sugar mommas get into relationships with younger men.)

While a cougar coupling may not necessarily be bothered by what society thinks of them, the age factor may still become an issue simply because each belongs to a different generation that is reflected in one’s attitude, upbringing and behavior. (Imagine ladies talking about traveling with Capt. Kirk in the USS Enterprise or getting lost in the Twilight Zone, to a man who grew up watching Barney, that disgusting purple dinosaur on TV!) What is important is whether or not the couple can weather their differences that come with the age gap.

Take the case of Vanessa. She is 42 and a strong independent woman who has never had a problem attracting men. But among the men she has dated, there wasn’t anybody serious enough to ask her for marriage, although she already had made a trip down the aisle once before, and has two kids with her ex. Whenever we talk about men and relationships, she always tells me that she is tired of the dating game and wants to settle down.

Now enters Toby, a 30-year-old American whom she met in May 2006. “It was the oddest moment because we met at the time when I was venting on my friends, telling them about my failed date two nights before and swearing that I would never date anymore. They told me not give up and that I would find the right man. Then they recommended Toby, who at that time was sitting at the bar next to us. And I said, ‘Him? How old is he? Twelve?’”

Vanessa says that she found Toby cute but she was more into men her age or someone older. “So at first I wasn’t interested. But I ran into him a couple of times. And as I got to know him, I realized how mature he is.”

As she got to know Toby more, she found out how many things they had in common. “He’s so cool. Bohemian like me. He’s a Renaissance man. We share the same interests: literature, non-mainstream music and films.” Calling Toby a “musicologist,” Vanessa says she has learned a lot about artists from him. She adds that she had never dated anyone who appreciates foreign films like her.

“Plus,” she rattles off, “he’s very open-minded, very interested in learning new things, very interested in my culture. He’s a modern man; he doesn’t expect his Asian woman to be subservient. He believes in equal opportunity in the kitchen. He’s from New Orleans and knows how to cook great dishes!!!”

After going steady for about two years, earlier this year Toby finally popped the big question. Vanessa excitedly announced it via e-mail and said she had gotten engaged. A few weeks after, the engagement was off. “What happened?!” I asked. She gave a cryptic answer about the age gap and the many issues that came with it.

Vanessa admits it was she who was more concerned about the age gap than Toby. “I was very cautious because of it. I wasn’t investing in the relationship too much because I thought he was still in the process of exploring life and that one day he would decide to go out with a 20-year-old bimbo. But as the months went by, I realized that I was underestimating him and that I was making a big deal out of the age gap for no reason.”

She realized how very serious he was about their relationship when she came home to Manila for a visit to spend time with her teenage children. “He said he wanted to come and meet them. That blew me away. I always told myself that the guy who wanted to meet my children would be ‘The One.’ And that’s Toby.”

Her kids fell in love with Toby immediately, especially her older son. “They talk about technology, which leaves me out of the conversation,” Vanessa jokingly gripes.

Two months ago, Toby again visited when Vanessa came for a visit. She is excited and says the engagement is back on and they are “making big plans this year.” I am, of course, keeping my fingers crossed that these plans push through.

“I realize that the age gap is all in the mind,” Vanessa says. “They’re just numbers with no relevance in the relationship. As long as you get along well and you have a mental and intellectual alignment, ‘cougar’ relationships can actually work.”

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. Photo from BM.)

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